Hawaii fires: Death toll climbs in Maui as historic town destruction surveyed
Lahaina (TN) – At least 80 people have died in wildfires on the island of Maui in Hawaii, officials said, a number expected to rise as the governor urged residents to shelter those who lost their homes.
The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people.
The official death toll as of Saturday makes this the deadliest US wildfire since the 2018 Camp Fire in California, which killed 85 people.
Governor Josh Green said the catastrophic flames have levelled the historic town of Lahaina, the worst natural disaster in Hawaii’s history. More than 1,000 buildings have been destroyed, leaving thousands homeless.
“What we saw was the utter devastation of Lahaina,” he said.
Mr Green said it would take “many years” to rebuild the town that was once the capital of the former kingdom of Hawaii.
“Lahaina, with a few rare exceptions, has been burnt down,” Mr Green said.
President Joe Biden on Thursday approved a federal disaster declaration, freeing up resources to assist in recovery efforts.
Mr Biden spoke with the governor in a phone call, to “let him know we’re going to make sure the state has everything it needs in the federal government to recover”. He also sent “his deep condolences for the lives lost and vast destruction of land and property”.
Firefighters from Honolulu have been requested to assist, while 30 US Army personnel arrived to begin search and recovery efforts.
“Our prayers with the people of Hawaii but not just our prayers, every asset we have will be available to them,” Mr Biden said while travelling to Utah.
“And we’ve seen their homes, their businesses destroyed, and some have lost loved ones.”
The flames and smoke had forced people to flee into the sea off Lahaina. The US Coast Guard said 14 people were rescued from the ocean.
Lahaina resident Emerson Timmins told AP: “There were those cars abandoned on the road. I don’t think those people could get out in time.
“They probably headed to the ocean, the ones that could make it.
“And the people leaving their homes, if a young person could barely get out of there with their family, then the elderly are trapped.”
Three days after the disaster, it remained unclear whether some residents had received any warning before the fire engulfed their homes.
The island includes emergency sirens intended to warn of natural disasters and other threats, but they did not appear to have sounded during the fire, Reuters reported.
Officials have not offered a detailed picture of what notifications were sent, and whether they went by text message, email or phone calls.
The devastation is behind me, but we will put our hope in front of us. pic.twitter.com/cTTUSsRTon
— Governor Josh Green (@GovJoshGreenMD) August 11, 2023
Lahaina residents Kamuela Kawaakoa and Iiulia Yasso also told AP they had been lucky to escape with their six-year-old child.
“It was so hard to sit there and just watch my town burn to ashes and not be able to do anything,” Mr Kawaakoa said. “I was helpless.”
Richard Bissen said the fires have tested the community’s resolve.
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” he said in a recorded statement on the County of Maui’s Facebook page.
“Even though we are hurting, we are still able to move forward – especially when we do it together. And the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu’, or community, as we rebuild with resilience.”
About 11,000 people were flown out of Maui on Wednesday with another 1,500 scheduled on Thursday, state transport director Ed Sniffen said.
About 2,100 people were crammed into in shelters in Maui on Tuesday night, county officials said.
Strong winds produced by Hurricane Dora were contributing factors to the fires and blowing power lines down.